Heart of Dragons

Grit. Humility. Heart. While these may not be your typical guiding principles at a university, they’re the key ingredients in helping Dragons achieve far more than they had ever imagined.

These core values are seen in the tenacious creativity of alumni who refuse to be deterred by roadblocks. They’re exhibited through the respect given to people from all walks of life. And they drive our alumni's passion for pursuing new adventures and highlighting the best in others.

These are the defining characteristics of the students who pass through our front gates and triumph in their entrepreneurial endeavors.

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As archaeologists go, they’re hardly the swashbuckling heroes of Indiana Jones fame.

But to companies looking to build a wind or solar farm, run a pipeline or construct a cell phone tower – Abraham Ledezma ’08Daniel Salas ’09 and Craig Picka ’09 all anthropology program graduates with archaeology emphases – are indispensable.

The three longtime friends own In Situ Archaeological Consulting. And their business success thus far, they say, can be attributed to hard work, perseverance and the training they received as undergraduates at MSUM.

In Situ is a player in the largely unseen world of cultural resource management consulting. Companies that use federal funding for construction projects need to ensure that the proposed site is free of artifacts that could have cultural significance. While some employ in-house archeologists, others call on firms like In Situ to excavate portions of the proposed site, examine it for traces of artifacts and then issue a report as part of the permitting process.

Preserving and protecting these artifacts is critical, Salas says. “They help us understand the history of North America, how people lived before us and migrated around the world and ensure that we appreciate the past and the cultures that came before us.”

A Quest for Experience

The seed that became In Situ was planted years ago. Picka and Ledezma have been friends since sixth grade; Salas joined the group while the three were undergraduates, and the three became virtually inseparable. During that time together, they began looking to the future. “We were sitting around between classes one day and started thinking it would be nice to start a company specializing in cultural resource management – once we got enough experience,” Ledezma recalls.

MSUM’s Anthropology program was the perfect solution. Because the university offers only an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, the three were able to participate in hands-on archaeological fieldwork most other universities offer only at the graduate level. “MSUM’s program is unique because undergraduates get a level of attention you likely wouldn’t get at a university that has a master’s program,” Picka says.

As part of their undergraduate studies, the three spent more than a month-and-a-half conducting hands-on fieldwork, an important prerequisite to getting accepted into a master’s program. Fieldwork is long, hot, intense – and often mosquito-infested. Students learn the finer points of excavating sites, collecting and numbering artifacts and, most importantly, understanding what they’ve discovered. In short, “Everything you need to know to be an archaeologist,” Ledezma says.”

That practical field experience earned the three admission to graduate school at Missouri State University. There, each focused on a slightly different aspect of archaeology, with an eye toward bringing them all together in the future. Ledezma specialized in remote sensing of historic sites; Picka, heat treatment of stone raw materials; Salas, use of ground penetrating radar.

After completing their studies, they parted ways. Picka and Salas lived together while working for separate companies during the North Dakota oil boom. Ledezma worked in Ohio. They talked every few days, sharing what they were learning, discussing better ways to do their jobs and dreaming of starting their own business.

After a few years, and with Ledezma and his fiancée expecting a baby they hoped to raise back in Minnesota, it was time to take the leap. The three moved back to the suburban Twin Cities and launched In Situ in October 2015. One of the first calls they placed was to their mentor, Dr. George Holley, professor of Anthropology at MSUM, for advice.

They realized that success wouldn’t come easily. About a half dozen companies in the Twin Cities alone do what In Situ does, and all have firmly established track records. Competition for contracts is often driven by price, with the job going to the lowest bidder. And while cell towers are seemingly sprouting everywhere, displacing an incumbent consulting organization isn’t easy. “When an engineering firm finds a consultant, they’ll stick with that consultant until they mess up royally,” Ledezma says.

Spreading the Word

Undeterred by the challenge of building a business from the ground up, they began spreading the word. “We talked to anyone and everyone we could find, telling them who we are and what we do,” Ledezma says. They were elated to quickly land a small contract.

But then things went quiet – and stayed that way.

Because Salas and Ledezma are Latino, they applied to have In Situ classified as a disadvantaged business in Minnesota and North Dakota. The process is intense, and approval took months. Once they received it, “We thought the contracts would come rolling in,” Ledezma says. “But they didn’t.”

Months passed. The phones were silent; email blank.

To make ends meet, Salas took a part-time job at a Minneapolis dairy. Ledezma earned extra cash cleaning bathrooms at a community center in Chaska.

The three leaned on each other for support and never doubted themselves. Finally, out of blue came a call from a global engineering firm with an office in Minneapolis. It had its own archaeological consultants on staff, but they were too busy; would In Situ be interested in picking up some of the slack?

That job led to another, and then others from different organizations. Suddenly, In Situ was awash in business. “Now we’re working full-time hours – and six or seven days a week,” Salas says, triumphantly.

Digging into the Future

As every small business knows, maintaining the momentum is everything. In Situ’s plans for that harken back to their undergraduate days when “our professors always taught us that if you invest a lot of time in your papers, it shows that you’re serious about your work,” Ledezma said. From experience, they’ve seen competitors take shortcuts in their reporting.

The three created a template that allows them to produce higher quality, more detailed reports than their rivals, enabling them to report like the big players but at a competitive price. “Before we send anything out the door, we stop and ask ourselves, ‘Is this reflective of the time we’ve spent on it and the training we received at MSUM?’ If not, we work on it until it is.” Salas said.

Plus, they’re already thinking about hiring staff to accommodate the newfound demand for their services, and they know exactly where to look. “We’re going to hire from MSUM,” Picka said, “because we’re sure they’ll be well-trained.”

While hardly taking their current success for granted the three have other plans in store, including creating a nonprofit subsidiary dedicated to scholarly archaeological work. “We love what we do,” Ledezma says, “but we also want to discover, investigate, publish articles and make a name for ourselves as outstanding archaeologists.”

Guided by Humility


Humility is a funny thing to brag about, but it’s one of the reasons our alumni often stand out. They use their knowledge and gifts to help others carry out their dreams. And they’re often the underdogs, performing detailed work behind the scenes, completing the tasks set before them so others can receive applause.

When Daniel Nygard ’07 (accounting) came to MSUM, he was immediately drawn to the music scene of Fargo-Moorhead, which mainly consisted of punk rock and rock ‘n’ roll. From booking shows to playing in a few bands, Nygard became familiar with many aspects of the music industry.

Although his major in accounting may seem like an unconventional choice for someone creatively bent, Nygard was encouraged by faculty as they reminded him that every industry needs accountants.

“It was kind of stressed in the program to get your CPA and go for one of the big firms,” Nygard said. “But there wasn’t any push from my advisor and professors, even though they knew that’s where a lot of the high-paying, good jobs were. They allowed me to do what I wanted to do.”

Even before graduating, Nygard secured a job with Fox Tax, LLC of Minneapolis, a small tax firm where he worked with niche businesses, such as artists, musicians, and other alternative lines of work for the next three years.

“That job helped me get to know a lot of people in the Minneapolis area, and it was kind of a natural progression,” Nygard said. “Having done it myself, I understood the people who did that. I know it’s a market where people in that industry aren’t good with their money. They don’t want to deal with it. They want somebody else to do that.”

After three years, Nygard took a different turn by taking a job with the State of Minnesota as a sales tax auditor. Although it was a good job, he soon knew it wasn’t the right fit.

“That was out of my realm,” Nygard said. “It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, but I learned a lot working on the opposite side of the spectrum.”

The value of his experiences gathered together when Nygard took a chance and started his own bookkeeping business. Much like his first job out of college, Nygard Bookkeeping deals with businesses outside of the standard company stereotypes. From tattoo artists to bands around the U.S., Nygard’s business has caught the attention of clients without ever needing to pay for advertising.

“I had one tattoo artist, and three months later I had three or four I was working with because word got out that I did this. Not many typical bookkeepers or accountants know these industries very well,” Nygard said. “Once you kind of know the game, it’s pretty easy to go forward and take everybody on.”

Eventually, one of his clients invited him to take on a full-time job with their company, Rhymesayers, an American hip-hop independent record label, and the environment and challenges keep Nygard gladly on his toes. “It’s been crazy. It’s constantly evolving and learning new processes in the industry working with royalties, licensing, publishing, all of that.”

Although Nygard enjoyed performing, he’s content using his strengths to highlight the gifts of others and ease their minds.

“They know they don’t have to worry about that facet of their business. They can just perform at 110 percent,” Nygard said. “Writing and performing is their end of it. My strength is in numbers, sitting down and doing bills, paychecks, and spreadsheets and working with a bunch of data. It’s kind of a strengths and weaknesses thing—knowing my place and knowing what I’m good at.”

Inspired by Heart


It started as a happy accident. Yvonne Denault ’97 (graphic communications) wandered into the Regional Small Business Center eight years ago looking for assistance in starting a design agency. Though the center didn’t help new businesses get off the ground, it did rent space.

Denault set up shop, and when another space became available next door, she was given an impromptu tour and fell in love.

“I went home and told my husband, ‘I think I should get into photography,’” Denault said. “He asked, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because I found this great studio space.’”

Despite doing poorly in a photography class during her studies at then-Moorhead State University and no formal photography training, she took a few boudoir photography courses in San Diego post-graduation and knew she’d found her passion.

She opened Yvonne Denault Photography in the space that inspired her and hasn’t looked back.

“Boudoir is empowering to women,” Denault said. “It’s not just about making a man feel good looking at the photos. This is about a woman coming in and feeling beautiful about herself.”

Like Denault, Sally (Wurpts) Loeffler ’00 (speech language hearing sciences) followed a unique course to her current career. When she started running in college, she had no idea she’d end up co-owner of Beyond Running. A speech language pathologist by trade, she bought into the company shortly after it opened in 2007. She says it felt like a natural transition.

“You go to college to learn how to think, not to learn how to do a job,” Loeffler said. “I had a hard time choosing a major. Part of me wanted to go into something creative, and the other part of me really wanted to do something more science-based. I finally feel like now I have the best of both worlds.”

In addition to her role at Beyond Running, Loeffler works as a speech pathologist at Vibra Hospital, a long-term intensive care unit in Fargo. The dual career keeps her busy.

Loeffler and Beyond Running co-owner Jason Overland opened sister-store Outermost Layer in 2010, and Beyond Running West this past summer. Although Loeffler says she has more ideas than time, her end goal is to make a difference and establish a sense of community in whatever she does.

“Whether they’re people in the hospital or people who are trying to make themselves better through running, I feed off that and am inspired by other people’s drive to get better,” Loeffler said.

Women’s empowerment is a theme throughout Denault’s entrepreneurial endeavors. Along with her thriving photography business, Denault established Pinup on the Plains and opened JessieBlue—formerly Vivie’s Boutique. Both are thriving.

Whether she’s teaching women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds how to confidently model lingerie on the catwalk, turning abstract ideas into reality through photos, or crafting trendy wardrobes for women in her boutique, Denault is focused on helping women feel beautiful.

“I think every woman goes through something that in their head tells them they have to attain a certain level of outward beauty,” Denault said. “When they come in for a shoot, they’re all carrying some baggage. Divorce. Cancer. Women who have had miscarriages, have been beaten up, are going through addiction, have been cheated on.

“It’s life. It beats you down as a woman. You compare yourself to others, and you think you’re the only one going through it. When clients come in here they finally see some beauty where they’ve lost a lot of it, and it inspires them to just keep going.”

But for the woman behind the camera and in the stockroom, sustaining multiple businesses can quickly become overwhelming.

“I have three locations. Then I’ve got staff and inventory. By the time I pay off all of my overhead, I’m basically working for nothing,” Denault said. “Even though I’m not taking a paycheck, somebody’s getting some value out of it.”

Yet in the face of all adversity, Denault and Loeffler exhibit an astonishing amount of heart. They continue to go the extra mile, are passionate about their purpose and are fiercely loyal to what they love.

Like true Dragons, these women plan to follow whatever paths make their hearts sing.

“If you’re creative, you’re constantly looking for something to feed the need to create,” Denault said. “Life gets boring.”

“The world is going to change, and there’ll probably be a day when I’m doing something completely different. I hope that’s true,” Loeffler said. “MSU was really good at providing a foundation for adapting, and opened a whole world of possibilities.”


This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Fall 2017.

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